An Idolator Rant: Maybe It’s Time To Start Dropping The S-Bomb

Dec 12th, 2006 // 38 Comments

Before we begin, take a look at this:

It’s a holiday commercial for the Gap, featuring rapper Common and a bunch of breakdancers. Even for those of you who skip through ads nowadays, it’s been hard to miss; not only is it on just about every three seconds, but it features Common clumsily equating “the hood” with Gap’s hooded sweatshirt. Painful stuff, to be sure.

But whenever we see it, we don’t just roll our eyes and shrug it off. We get a little fired up–the same way we get fired up when we see those Nintendo Wii ads featuring Hawthorne Heights, or Daniel Powter pimping a Chevy truck in Rolling Stone. These are all artists about which we could not care less, and yet they each prompted us to utter something we haven’t said since 1995:

“What a sellout.”

You read that right–we said sellout. For our younger readers, “selling out” is the charmingly antiquated notion that a musician diminishes his or her work by aligning themselves with a commercial entity. It’s an idea most hotly debated during the alt-rock supermarket-sweep of the early ’90s, when the indie scene was cherry-picked by the major labels. Back then, artists thought hard and long over whether they should endorse a sneaker, or lend a song to a soundtrack, or even appear in Time. Such navel-gazing may have been a little self-important, but at least the gazers cared about maintaining a modicum of credibility.

And then the ’90s ended, and a whole bunch of bands got dropped without making a dime. Suddenly, the profit-scorching machinations of the biz became clear, and we all became a little more forgiving of a cheesy advertorial or a song being used in the Happy Gilmore trailer. Everyone’s gotta eat, we thought, and we saw enough bands break up over money problems to know that credibility is a bank-breaking burden. Sometimes, a little sponsorship keeps the overhead down.

But somehow, in the last few years, this casual acceptance became less of a slippery slope, and more of a Wile E. Coyote-sized perch, one in which we’ve all been too willing to jump off. No one’s going to deny that Internet piracy and label mergers have made ancillary sources of income more important than ever, but we’ve become way too forgiving: Jay-Z starts hawking Budweiser Select and NASCAR, and we turn a blind eye. 3 Doors Down take a two-page spread for Verizon Wireless, and we forget we ever saw it (for numerous reasons). These aren’t little indie acts trying to clear next month’s rent; they’re big-name acts that like to cover up their greed by talking up their “branding” and “cross-synergy platforms.” And even the ones that aren’t commanding big mechanical-royalty checks should at least do a little soul-searching: Hey, Common–you know what? If you really need a cringe-inducing Gap spot to sustain your career, maybe you shouldn’t have a career at all.

Look, we’re not suggesting that everyone go live in a cave with Ian MacKaye, holding ten-hour debates on whether or not to appear on the fifth stage at the Warped Tour. We’re just asking for a little less complacency on the part of the fans, and a little more outrage. Sure, everyone’s gotta eat–but do they have to be so goddamn gluttonous?

  1. Audif Jackson Winters III

    Bob Dylan appeared in a ladies’ underwear ad. It’s not possible anymore to “sell out.” Q.E.D.

  2. Ozzy

    As the “KO at Home” and “ninjas” debates have shown (and by the way: WTF on both counts), we’ve moved on to other completely-outside-the-music issues to bitch over.

    (But yeah, that Common ad sucks. Didn’t RFTC do one back in the day. And then there was that Torotise CK ad. Lame, lame, lame.)

  3. Tenno

    i don’t even like Common and i found this ad neither interesting or even reasonably well put together……not to mention there is some serious crimes against ryhmes in the lyrics.

    he would have been better put to use in an old navy ad, i find those strangely irresistable.

    ps: weird al had a much better Gap name drop in his last album. fucking zing!

  4. The Mozfather

    And the gauntlet has been thrown! Methinks this is a little bit of a traffic-boosting insta-controversy.

    Aside from all the valid arguments for artists choosing to promote products, my question is, why get yourself caught up in knots about this? If you think the artist is a sell-out, that’s fine, think that. Who said that an artist’s public persona has to be in any way “authentic”? That’s just fetishizing the artist, not the music. You can do that, as well, but personally, alls I care about is the music.

  5. Audif Jackson Winters III

    Mozfather, if that’s true, I assume you object to song-altering commercials like the “Swiff it good!” Devo ad for Swiffer mops, or my personal favorite, the car commercial which crops the Dandy Warhols’ “Bomhemian Like You” to say, “You’ve got a great car … and I like you .. yeah I like you, I like you, I like you.”

  6. One Louder

    Honestly, it was kind of hard to read this article. I was too distracted by all the blinking banner ads.

  7. Panhandler

    In a world where Siouxsie & Robert both sing to me at the Publix, does anything really matter anymore?

  8. musette

    When I saw the ad, I thought “good for him, he needs to make some money.” That commercial will enable an extra 100k people in the flyover to buy Be who would have never heard of Common but for the ad.

    The fact is radio is fractured (and mostly dead) and it’s impossible to create opportunites to expose yourself to potential audiences without having a commercial tie-in, a song plugged into the Wire, or the current indie holy grail: an ending montage on Grey’s Anatomy, etc.

    I was in an indie label meeting a couple of weeks ago and every single one of us had just bought Mad World after hearing it on the video game commercial.

    Mass media is the new radio.

  9. chaircrusher

    Is Common name-checking Dave Chapelle as Dave Champipple? That’s the most unfortunate mutation of ‘izzle-speak’ since … evar.

    I remember driving 4 hours in 1997 to see Xecutioners, Rahzel and Common in Macomb Illinois and almost dying driving home on black ice, but feeling like I’d really seen something. First Rahzel, now Common, total commercial sellouts. What’s next — Rob Swift doing tampon adverts?

  10. The Mozfather

    No, I like the Mitsubishi ad that uses the Flaming Lips song, “Do You Realize?” which has the great-for-selling-cars line: “Do You Realize – that everyone you know someday will die” (which they conveniently omit).

    Or, howabout, Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut” – the worst song of a great artist – which is used to sell “Coke with Lime” – forgetting the part, of course, about how lime with the coconut makes the speaker of the song sick.

    But, answering your question, I don’t *object* to songs being mangled. I think it’s usually a poor choice, aesthetically, because it flattens meaning. But I don’t care about the money behind the whole thing.

    I also think it’s really funny.

  11. Chris Molanphy

    I see the points of all the commenters here but my sympathies are fundamentally with you guys/the editorial. You’re right – the outrage has become so nonexistant that none of the artists are thinking about what they should or shouldn’t do anymore.

    Then again, I’m one of the few Nick Drake fans who liked the Volkswagen ad. So sometimes mass art trumps principles.

  12. Ozzy

    dennisobell: What you liked abou the Pink Moon ad was that it was somewhat tastefull.

    I’m pretty sure Nick Drake never thought about selling cars, but still – that VW ad was pretty close to the spirit of the song, or at least close to how most fans might plausibly experience it.

    Not sure I could say the same of most the other $$$ellouts mentioned here.

    Then, again I still say Who Cares. If the artists feel the payoff is worth the chance they’re taking with their fans, let them do it.

  13. Oh Word

    The reason we can’t muster up any outrage is that over the past ten years Gap ads have actually been slightly better than Common’s catalog.

  14. Juancho

    As I remember, Nick Drake’s family/estate debated heavily over whether to do that ad. They decided they liked the product (VWs were really good at the time), and as mentioned, it was “tasteful”, rather clever, and fit his image of outsider romantacism.

  15. Oh Word

    By the way Common already did a very visible and cheezy ad campaign some years back with a theme of “realness” for Coca Cola.

    So what’s the news exactly – that Common is still a sellout? Com is VH1′s darling too so he doesn’t have a real anti-establishment image to worry about and hip-hop is overly forgiving of a hustle by any means so no one blinks an eye.

    We’re far past the days of:

    ‘proper’ what’d you say, Hammer? ‘proper’
    rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop.

    and there’s no turning back.

  16. Scott Steg

    Unfortunately, it seems advertisements, particularly tv commercials are the new radio. Since most stations are too playlist-oriented and do the same stuff over and over or are too “out there” to play something worth listening to, tv commercials have helped us enjoy tracks from The Teddybears (one of those Interl commercials with the dancing dude) and Telepopmusick (remember that Mitsubishi commercial?).

    Maybe being played on the radio 24/7 is the new sellout?

  17. mookieproof

    I’m not too concerned about Common or the Gap or whatever. These sorts of things have the opportunity to diminish an artist’s work, but sometimes that’s a chance worth taking–Bob Seger said that Chevy trucks put his kids through college. And maybe someone will check out Royksopp after seeing that Geico ad.

    That said, there are levels of advertising evil. I have to say I was pretty disappointed to hear Chan Marshall singing for the diamond industry.

  18. The Velvet Blog

    I’m loving the They Might Be Giants songs running in the current Dunkin Donuts ads.

  19. Mr. Kim Gordons Panties

    Thankfully, most of the music I listen to is far too offensive to ever be licensed for anything other than a porn shoot or maybe a slasher flick. As soon as The Sword starts singing about rivers of blood (and how you can solve that with Tampax) I’ll start worrying.

    Also, I thought the whole point of hip-hop/rap was to sellout for as much as possible, then rap about it.

    But maybe I’m just a stupid indie-rock fuck.

  20. The Riffage

    What’s that quote? Something like, “Anytime you trade art for money, you make a deal with the devil.” Thus, all true musicians should be struggling musicians.

    In all seriousness, it’s a bit subjective. In certain cases, this stuff works well promoting both artist and product without being excessive.

    In others, it’s total overkill — I can’t even listen to “Rock n’ Roll” anymore thanks to Cadillac.

  21. TableTopJoe

    I have no idea what say if any Lou, John, Sterling, etc. had in this, but did anyone else notice the ad for some SUV (Nissan maybe?) that features the intro to the VU’s Heroin? 4 wheel drive makes me feel like I’m a man! When I put the spike into my… transmission. An interesting choice to say the least.

  22. Breliant

    I vaguely recall a Grand Royal article on why Gap ads suck.

  23. robotbutler

    Common has been a corporate shill for years.(the coke ads that ran every 10 seconds for what seemed like a couple years) But i don’t care cuz i lost interest after “someday it will all make sense”. However, i think it is good for bands like Of Montreal (outback) & the Old 97′s (chili’s) who probably actually need the money. Not since fat bastard has there been a better delivery of “baby back ribs” as Rhett Miller’s

  24. ow my eye

    fish in a barrel, meet gun. gun, meet fish in a barrel. play nice.

  25. ack

    The Common one I don’t mind so much b/c he’s a local boy…

    The The for Dockers is the one that made me scream aloud.

    Not to mention Goldfrapp must be making a mint for ‘Supernatural’. Between Target and the fall TV promos it got a bit much.

  26. myrrh

    As ubiquitous these days as “selling out” is, this kind of rant is important to keep us aware of it. Best Idolator post in a while. Maybe you guys should write more rants and fewer faux-Danzig jokes.

  27. Tenno

    The Prototypes are on that new Ipod shuffle ad I believe…..PROTIP: I got into them thanks to Idolator, thank you Idolator.

  28. spinachdip

    I shouldn’t be surprised, but it’s kinda amusing to see people apparently older than 17 using “sellout” as a pejorative.

  29. FunkyJ

    I used to think like this, be outraged by ‘sell-outs’.

    But well, with rap since Run DMC were sponsored by Adidas, I haven’t really cared about rap artists ‘selling out’ – having the opinion most of them have ‘sold out’ before even kicking off the ground with their first record.

    As someone else mentioned, Radio is all but dead, so people need to get their tunes out to the masses somehow.

    I’ve noticed a lot more big artists in video games for example – and when I booted up Fifa Street 2 and heard Coldcut’s True Skool I was taken a back – but then I thought “where else are the kids gonna hear this great tune though?”

    Fifa Street’s a crap game, but it sold well, and even if 1% of the people hear that tune and go out buy the record, that’s awesome for Coldcut or any of the other artists on the soundtrack.

  30. spinachdip

    Commercials don’t bother me, at least not nearly as much as it used to.

    Not to shill my own blog or anything, but I wrote about this when Jack White’s Coke commercial came out. My basic argument was, if doing a commercial for a relatively non-evil corporation pays the bills, then it frees up the artist to make the music they want to make without worrying about whether it fits a radio format.

    It’d be far worse to pull a Liz Phair and redo an album because the label suits said the album was only “gold-ish” and she can’t feed her daughter with a gold record. Better to “sell out”, take the guaranteed cash and not worry whether the music sells or not.

  31. chocomel

    This is all Moby’s fault.

  32. jb

    Bush is outrageous not Common’s innocous commercial. Even when you bring it down to the delicously frivolous pop world there are plenty more worthy of your ire (Snowman anyone? He not only sells out but sells death by cotton proxy). Common’s just too easy a target (given his fondness for knit pants and the like). Why not Jay or Russell “blood diamonds are forever” Simmons?

  33. musette

    MIss Harvill: “Relatedly, Musette, I do take offense to the idea that people “in the flyover” don’t hear music unless it’s in Gap ads. Now THAT is a tired old useless idea.”

    My intent was not to offend: I live in Austin, Texas and “the flyover” is a term we have embraced as an endearment.

    However, the fact is, unless you are really into music, your only access to new music is: your local/regional music scene, whatever the corporate overlords at Clear Channel and the MTVs decide you should hear in constant rotation, and mass media.

    Music is very regional. When you are in LA, you hear very different music than in Atlanta, New York, Dallas, Chicago, etc. on the radio and in the clubs.

    Recently, I worked with a multi-Grammy nominated artist who is from the Mid-West. He’s had some big-time radio/video play nationally, but he’s certainly a lesser light. In the Mid-West, he’s a god. Outside the Mid-West, you would see a faint glimmer of recognition at the mention of his name among people who are fans of his genre. Were he to do a commercial, certainly people outside his region (and genre) would be exposed to him more significantly than a grammy performance or heavy rotation.

    I am not saying that’s how it should be, but for the majority of music listeners in every region, that is how it is.

    A brief anecdote to end an abusurdly long comment:

    My family uses any holiday vacation as an excuse to raid each other’s music collections. My brother lives in TCOTU and works in the industry, as does his girlfriend (at one of the overlords). He was flipping through our mother’s iTunes and noticed an indie band he really liked. When he asked, rather dumbstruck, our mother how she’d heard of the group no less found the song, she told him “Gray’s Anatomy.”

  34. Miss Harvill

    Late to the party, been in planes all day, but I still want to add my .02 here. I’m with Myrrh on this one. I don’t believe it’s necessary even with todays market. It is an important topic still, and maybe more than ever now that its so widespread. But I think there is a difference between selling your preexisting song to be used in an ad, and what Common is doing there. Are you an artist selling art, or are you a tool of corporations?
    Relatedly, Musette, I do take offense to the idea that people “in the flyover” don’t hear music unless it’s in Gap ads. Now THAT is a tired old useless idea.

  35. Ariata

    The above article is correct in its assessment of the term “sell out,” but one has to be careful not to go crazy. Are Common and Three Doors Down sell outs? Of course they are. But what Devo re-recording “Whip It” for Swiffer or the aforementioned They Might Be Giants/Dunkin’ Dough nuts ads? In my opinion, no. The Swiffer ad are considered by many fans as a “very ‘Devo’ thing for them to do,” and the Dunkin’ ads… it’s a TMBG video with a dough nut and a cup of coffee in it. Even Daniel Powter isn’t a sell-out in my book. I mean, come on. The guy’s 35 and worked like hell to get his one hit. Let him enjoy it. Besides, he doesn’t really have much of an image to begin with.

  36. mymuseic

    the statement that you are trying to make is SAFE and slightly watered down. if you are going to try to condense such a large topic into a short synopsis i would also use different references with the audience being considered.

    with the current article that you have posted your message is at an escalated risk of being marginalized within the audience of this website and if this were something that you truly believed in your SOUL i would suggest rewording.

    your initial guidance to watch the commercial which you provided communicates contradictions on many levels.

    by playing it safe and staying on the surface you have disregarded contradictions that are not only FAR more important but the rectification of which are the prerequisite to achieving the goal in which you have expressed.

    if you focus on cameron then you intentionally or unintentionally defect attention away from the GAP.

    cameron is a pawn. a minion. willing to take ANYTHING that comes his way because he knows that has no RELIVANCE.

    he has never had relevance in MUSIC.

    and the success that he did have has been through a medium which poached music that was created by the great artists of the PAST (sampled), flashy jewelry, sports memorabilia, and expensive cars to manipulate the most CREATIVE populous within the american culture to believe that this was their life, that they could relate, and if they were willing to sell their SOUL that they too could one day be lucky enough, in the words of jay-z become a “BRAND”.

    think that sounds disheartening? if the GAP is willing to participate in a campaign at the cost of the INTIGRITY of OUR culture for the sake of selling product then with a little research and common scense you might also want to think about ANY campaign that the company does. no matter how inspi(RED) they claim to be.

    to ensure that this article doesn’t end up exactly where the idea of PEACE does in this commercial (nice stage) while an already marginalized “rapper” goes into the depths of his soul and justifies a correlation between a hooded sweatshirt and the “hood”. i would take another stab at it.

  37. IamnotStarJones

    Common can’t sell out the same way that Ice Cube has with vomit inducing family comedies and stupid reality shows so he made a Gap commercial instead.

    And he’s probably going to waste the money by purchasing real estate or depositing money into his child’s college fund.
    Yeah some artists are more like our parents than we thought.

  38. Miss Tanya

    I want to drop by Ian’s cave and see what’s shakin’.

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